Tokyo is an amazing city pack with so many people and experiences! The metro area of Tokyo actually has more people than all of Canada! Crazy, eh?
We were in Japan during Japan’s Golden Week, which has several spiritual/civic holidays, such as Children’s Day, the Emperor’s birthday, etc. We attended some Shinto ceremonies around the city during this time. The Shinto shrines in Tokyo are very beautiful and are steeped in tradition.
In contrast to the solemn Shinto ceremonies, Tokyo also has the bustling downtown with all kinds of lights, robot cafes, arcades, and almost anything you can imagine! The famous Shibuya cross walk is fascinating to watch, where a mad rush of pedestrians bolt across the street to beat waiting flux of cars!
Something I didn’t know about Japan – Japanese love baseball! We attended a match in Tokyo in the Swallow’s stadium. There’s nothing quite like watching baseball and drinking a warm sake! The Swallow fans have a funny celebration when their team reaches home – everyone pulls out a mini umbrella and bobs them up in down in surprising unison! It was like a choreographed sports wave with umbrellas!
A great day trip was to the Fuji Five Lakes, near the base of Mt. Fuji. We hopped a bus there, and wandered the trails around the lakes. We wanted to climb up Mt. Fuji, but there was too much snow at this time of year (May). The views were beautiful, as we had some gorgeous weather.
And a trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without trying some sushi! We found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Yes, this is exactly what you’re thinking. The chefs are in the middle surrounded by a conveyor belt of little plates with sushi. Customers sit on the outside of this conveyor belt and grab plates as they go around. When you’re done you bring your plates to the front and pay for each plate (different colour plates represent different prices). It was so delicious!
Note that this posting is about our travels from May 2016. This marks the end of the Asia trip. Jon continues his journey to Taiwan, and I head back to Canada to explore the Canadian and US National Parks. Asia has been a blast with so many amazing people, places, and experiences. The journey continues!
We spent about a week between Kyoto and Osaka – there’s so much to see and do here! The many temples/shrines are amazing, with such an attention to detail! It seems that every inch of the buildings are polished and every plant in the surrounding gardens are trimmed to a perfect proportion! Whether you’re visiting with a spiritual motive or to simply site-see, you will not be disappointed! Of particular note is the shrine Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine with thousands of Torii gates – very beautiful!
Osaka was also a fun place to check out, especially their aquarium. You take an escalator up, and walk down through the aquarium via a spiraling walkway. There is a massive tank in the middle with all kinds of massive sea creatures – dolphins, seals, whales, sharks, whale-sharks, manta rays, and much more!
In both Kyoto and Osaka there are numerous beautiful gardens, walking paths, arcades (very intense experience), nightlife, and great food. If you’re in the area be sure to check out the town of Nara and Mount Koya, both are great day trips. Nara has some beautiful shrines and temples, and plenty of tame mini-deer! Mount Koya is a traditional holy mountain with a collection of very interesting monasteries, convents, and shrines. You take a train and a cable-car (funicular) to reach the top. There are plenty of beautiful walking trails around the temples and the little town.
The next stop is the bustling capital of Tokyo, and the end of our Asian adventures!
Hiroshima is a beautiful modern city with an ominous past. This is one of the two sites where the USA dropped an atomic bomb in World War II. The memorial and museum in the city present the atrocity and Japan’s role in World War II in a respectful and informative way. Let us hope that remembering this dark part of human history will ensure that it never repeats itself.
Aside from the memorials, there are many other great sites to check out. The Hiroshima Castle (actually a replica of the original) is an interesting museum of Japanese history. A little pricey, but interesting none-the-less. Another unique trip is to the Itsukushima Shine, a Shinto shrine along the coast. Depending on the tide, the shrine can be partly submerged in water. You can easily take public transit to this site via train/boat.
In Japan so far, it’s fairly easy to note that costs are quite a bit higher than other Asian countries. Long-haul Japanese trains are very expensive, but for budget travellers, you can easily take buses instead for a fraction of the cost. No pass is required – just head to the local bus station and buy your tickets there. In peak travel times, it may we worthwhile to buy the ticket a day or so in advance.
Jon and I had a cool experience in a Japanese restaurant/pub. We heard that okonomiyaki was very good, so we found a restaurant serving this. We walked in and saw what looked like a bar, but half of the bar was actually a large grill. We sat down asked for okonomiyaki. Our server then poured a rice-based batter on the grill to form a pancake like item, and started adding cabbage, pork, eggs, sauce, and all kinds of vegetables. When she was done she gave us a plate and a spatula. We could slice up our lunch and chow done when we were ready!
A local fellow at the restaurant noticed that we weren’t locals (I wonder how!), and told us he works as a chef in Las Vegas, and was back home for holidays. We chatted with him for quite a while, and he wouldn’t let us pay for our meal – he covered the full bill! What hospitality!
Fukuoka is a great introduction to Japan – very laid back with beautiful scenery. Although we didn’t do a lot, it was great to relax in the many parks and gardens. I also found the people in Fukuoka to be very friendly – sometimes confusingly so! I dropped into a 7/11 (which is actually a Japanese company now) to buy a quick lunch. As I was paying the clerk had a huge smile and said something to me in Japanese. Before I could blink he put a big box in front of me, and motioned for me to take something from it. I pulled out a little card with an anime cartoon on it. The clerk sounded like he was congratulating me… apparently I had won a free coffee!
While walking around we checked out the Fukuoka Castle and a Shinto Shrine. Shinto is a unique religion to Japan, and is connected to traditional rituals, mythology, connection with nature, and the Japanese Emperor.
Note that we were in Japan in April 2016. While in Fukuoka, we felt the aftershocks of the major earthquake that hit southern Japan. We were 200 km away from the epicenter, but very distinctly felt the shaking in the middle of our first night in Japan. On the roads, we could see many military aid conveys travelling to the affected area. Even in this disaster, it was heartening to see the people throughout Japan working together to raise funds for those affected.
Our next destination is Hiroshima. Onward and forward.
Beijing is a behemoth of the ancient and modern worlds. The current Chinese Communist Government is one of the most powerful on earth with a strong grip of control over its people. And while much of the traditional Chinese culture has been downplayed in China’s recent past, sites such as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City demonstrate China’s long-lasting legacy stretching back millenia.
What do I mean by “strong grip” of the government here? One example: each Chinese person is permitted to work where the government decides. This usually means that a person can work in their home province, and are not allowed to move to another region of the country without permission. As Beijing and Shanghai have stronger economies, there are many “illegal workers” from other parts of China. While using the Beijing metro (which is awesome), there were several police checkpoints that require personal identification. As a foreigner the police didn’t care about me – only Chinese nationals. If an illegal worker’s ID was scanned multiple times, they could be flagged. Not quite what we’re used to back home… perhaps a tradeoff between freedom and economic development. Even if you don’t like the Chinese government’s policies, the economic progress over the last decades have been unprecedented in human history.
In the city we stayed in a traditional area, with our hostel having an open common area that was surrounded with rooms. Very peaceful area and a nice neighbourhood. The food in Beijing is to die for, especially the Peking Duck. The duck was brought out and carved in front of us, and is eaten with thin pancake/crapes and various vegetables. So good!
Obviously, we visited the Great Wall! We went to a part of the wall that is less visited, and we had it to ourselves for the most part! I did meet one Chinese fellow who was trying to tell me something. My lack of Mandarin and his lack of English resulted in a traditional charades discussion. I figured out that he was offering me a cigarette, and that along his trek, we was smoking one cigarette for each wall tower! He had a good laugh and headed off!
The China trip comes to an end. This has been a truly unique and fascinating country. Even though us in the West don’t always agree with other political/value systems, we can appreciate their strengths and learn from their weaknesses. Now for the last leg of the Asia trip – Japan!
Xi’an is a city northwest of Shanghai, and is close to the world-famous Terracotta Army. This massive tomb for the first Qin Emperor houses over 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horses, cavalry, and chariots. It is such a massive complex that areas are still being excavated. It’s a real wonder to see.
We made another day trip from Xi’an to Huashan Mountain. This is considered a holy mountain, and has several temples/shrines that can be visited. You ride a gondola to the top that affords some breathtaking views. Once at the top, there are numerous hiking trails, glass bridges, and mini-gondolas to explore. It would be worth spending 2 days here to visit all the areas, but we had to catch the bus back to the city. Maybe next time!
From Xi’an we catch a bullet train to the capital – Beijing!
Shanghai is a bustling and modern city with gorgeous cityscapes, parks, and museums. For some reason I thought it was going to be less developed and unpleasant – but I was wrong. The city is clean, easy to get around, and has lot of cool sights!
The famous cityscape of Shanghai, the Bund, is gorgeous at nighttime. Another place not to miss is the Shanghai Museum. There are artifacts and artwork from the many Chinese dynasties. My favorite collections are the ceramics and jade. So cool!
There are many very nice parks in the city to chill and relax. At one of the main parks in Shanghai you can visit the Shanghai Marriage Market. This is where the parents of unmarried children go and try to find prospects for their kids. It’s quite fascinating – you can see photos and stats such as height, occupation, age, etc. It’s like an online dating profile filled out by your parents. You’ll see one photo of this below.
One recommendation for food – all over the city you will find self-serve soup restaurants. You get a bowl and add whatever you want: meats, veggies, noodles, spices, etc. You then give it to the kitchen staff and they prepare it for you. It is extremely tasty and quite cheap. Watch out though, one time I thought I’d selected pork, but it ended up being stomach. Haha, live and learn!
I really enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Now off northwest to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors!
Photos by Jon Lang
Asia Trip – Early 2016
P.S. – In the last post I mentioned that we were going to take a 20 hour train ride to Shanghai. This ride went very well, and was quite comfortable. We had a sleeper, which is a bunk bed stacked 3 high. Each compartment had 2 sets of bunk beds, so there were 6 of us. Jon and I shared it with a local family, who were quite curious about who we were. Even though we couldn’t converse due to the language difference, they were very friendly and good travel companions. We had a good night’s rest, and were well fed with the food cart that went by every couple of hours during the daytime. Even though it was long, the train experience was very good!
Zhangjiajie and Mt. Tianmen are some of the most stunning places in my travels so far – and that’s saying something! I’d read about them, but actually being here is jaw-dropping.
The city of Zhangjiajie is an 8 hour drive north of Guilin, but we took a short flight. Near the city is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. This is where many of the stunning photos are from. The landscapes include hundreds of high and skinny pillar-like formations as far as you can see! This is actually the area where the movie Avatar was filmed. When you see this place, it’s almost seems too amazing to be real!
Getting around this park is really easy, as you can ride elevators, gondolas, or shuttles. We even stayed overnight in the park at a hostel. I recommend staying at least 2 days in the park, and 3 if you have time. After the park we headed back to the city for a night. We then checked out a nearby mountain, Tianmen Mountain. The road going out to the mountain is unbelievable. The only road that compares is the Transfagarasan road in Romania. Check out the photo below. Once you get up to the mountain, you then take an escalator THROUGH the mountain. Yes, they actually drilled through the mountain and built a massive escalator! The engineering here is amazing.
Once you get near the top, you can take a stroll on a glass bridge bolted to the side of the mountain. They even give you slippers to put over your shoes – everyone looks so tidy! You can check out the Buddhist Tianmenshan Temple near the top that was built over 1100 years ago.
Zhangjiajie is an absolute must for anyone travelling to China. While a little out-of-the-way, you can catch planes or trains to get out here. Our next stop is Shanghai – a solid 20 hour train ride away!
With our visa in hand, it was easy to travel from Hong Kong across the mainland Chinese border to Shenzhen, a city right next to Hong Kong. When we got to the immigration desk, the officer looked at us and gave someone a phone call… our hearts started beating. Luckily there was no problem and we were able to catch our train to Guilin.
If you travel in China, know that the train system is awesome! The network is massive and has state of the art bullet trains that go over 300km/hr. You can use an app called C-Trips, where you can buy all the train and plane tickets that you need. It is in English and is easy to use.
We arrived to Guilin, and were surprised to find out that the city has over 4.7 million people! The maps and books made it look like a small city… I guess for China it is! It was fun wandering around and checking out the different neighbourhoods. There aren’t very many foreigners here, so we definitely got some stares. With a wave those stares soon turned into smiles!
From Guilin we took a boat ride down the Li River to the stunning town of Yangshuo. This area is surrounded by steep/narrow mountains, and provides some great views. A local told us about a hiking trail up to a communications tower. After a good hour of climbing steps and steep trails, we had an ample reward. Check out the photos!
The next day we decided to go freestyle hiking throughout the countryside. We came across several little villages and farms. At one point we had our tablets open trying to figure out where we were, and a local farmer came up to us and asked us where we wanted to go. Note this was all done through charades. We pointed on the map that we wanted to follow the river, and he showed us a good path through his farm to reach the river.
After following the river for an hour or so, we came to the end of the trail. Unfortunately we wanted to keep going, but the steps were washed out. We back-tracked and bartered with a fisherman/merchant for a ride to our destination.
It was a good adventure, but we were really hungry! We stopped by a little restaurant and found a menu with good pictures! Our Mandarin is nil, and ditto for our hosts’ English. We ordered a ridiculous amount of food – a massive fish, chicken, duck, pork, and rice. Our hosts watched in amazement as we gobbled down everything. It was so good!
The fish was really fresh. In fact, it was swimming in a tank just outside of the restaurant. A guy on a moto drives by each day and delivers the fish right to the tank! After we sat down at the restaurant, our host grabbed a fish and showed it to us. Needless to say it passed inspection!
Another quirky thing about many restaurants here is the cutlery and dishes. They come pre-wrapped in plastic and are set out on the tables. I think that the dirty dishes/cutlery are collected by a company at the end of the day, and they clean, re-package, and deliver them the next day. Pretty efficient!
A few general tips about travelling in mainland China:
Google is blocked. No Google search, no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Playstore. Be sure to have some other email account, map app, and any other apps that you need BEFORE entering mainland China. All of this was accessible in Hong Kong when we were there, but once crossing the mainland Chinese border, it is blocked. I’ve never seen such an effective firewall… best to be prepared
There is very little or no English in many places. Try to find a hostel/hotel where there are English speakers. Check out the property description and reviews – it will usually say. This is very helpful as you can get good local travel tips, and have someone write down your hostel or destination in Mandarin, and you can show this to a bus driver or cab driver. This is more valuable than you can imagine!
Prior to going to China, buy a good travel book. This can provide useful information for sights and destinations. Make sure that the book includes the Chinese names of things in case you need to ask someone for directions.
Most tour agencies are for local Chinese, not foreigners. Agents often don’t speak English, and you will be on a big bus with Chinese tourists. I recommend asking for info at your hotel/hostel if there’s an English speaker there
Obviously, be respectful of the local traditions and customs. Also, as government control is quite tight, don’t say anything negative about the government or its policies.
Other than that, enjoy this beautiful country!
There’s a lot more to check out in China, so stay tuned!
Hong Kong is a really unique place. It’s a very compact city that is a “Special Administrative Region” of China. What does this mean, and why? I’ll sum it up for you:
Hong Kong used to be “leased” to the UK back in the colony days. The lease expired in 1997. Prior to the expiration, the UK and China negotiated a smooth transition for Hong Kong back to China in 1997
Even though Hong Kong is part of China, it’s much easier for Westerners to travel to Hong Kong. As a Canadian you get 90 days. To access mainland China, you need to have a pre-aproved visa and do much more paperwork
Hong Kong has much more access economically to outside markets, especially in finance, than mainland China
Hong Kong has a separate political system than mainland China and is based on a democratic model. There have been recent issues, however, in that mainland China is said to select suitable candidates
Our hotel in Hong Kong was the most bizarre place we’ve stayed in the whole trip. The hotel was on the 16th floor of a massive complex called the Chung King Mansion. There is a chaotic swirl of activity on the first floor with shops, hawkers of “genuine fake” watches, restaurants, and almost everything else you could think of. There were 4 different elevators, so we hopped in the first one. We needed to get to the 16th floor, but this elevator only went to odd-numbered floors! We got off on the 15th floor and wandered through 2 different blocks, or sections, and finally found our hotel. It was really nice, but so tiny! Very bizarre, but it did the trick!
Getting the visa to mainland China was more work than we thought. For Canadians, the normal route is to get a multiple entry visa that is good for the life of our passport, and allows as many trips as you want with a limit of 30 days per trip. The problem is that they wanted $350 Canadian ($280US+/-), and it was a lot of paperwork. We would have had to book all of our hotels and have an exit flight. I guess this is usually done before travelling to China at your local Chinese embassy.
We found one visa agency that had a group visa for mainland China. So long as there are at least 2 people and you are in Hong Kong when applying, you can get this and only pay $80 Can ($65 US) each. Oddly, we didn’t have to do any paperwork – NOTHING! The next day we picked up a piece of paper with a visa sticker, and we were good to go! At first we thought it was fake, but it got us in!
During our time in Hong Kong, we wandered around the city and checked out the fantastic sky line, and took a tram (cable car) up one of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, the weather was not very good, so we don’t have the best photos. I threw some in, but apologize for the limited selection.
Next stop is Guilin, a city that is about 5 hours north of Hong Kong. Mainland China, here we come!